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Defining Internet Infidelity

Which online actions are considered infidelity may vary from person to person.

Key points

  • There is a great deal of variation in the definitions of infidelity and online infidelity.
  • Having an open and honest discussion with your partner is important when it comes to determining what constitutes infidelity for each of you.
  • There are differences in how couples view infidelity, work through it, and recover from it.
 Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Infidelity involves a violation of trust and may damage the commitment romantic partners have made to one another. Sharpe, Walter, and Goren (2013) share that “Infidelity is a serious relationship issue, as it not only reflects instability within the primary relationship, but also may have intense negative consequences for both individuals in the dyad” (p. 644). One issue faced when discussing infidelity and Internet infidelity is that there is so much variation in what infidelity means. In addition, there are differences in how couples view infidelity, work through it (if they so choose), and recover from it.

First, the definition of infidelity is vague and may differ from couple to couple and even amongst partners within a couple. The Perceptions of Dating Infidelity Scale (PDIS; Wilson, Mattingly, Clark, Weidler, & Bequette, 2011) is a measure that assesses subjects’ attitudes toward different behaviors that may constitute cheating. Sample behaviors include dancing with someone other than your partner and dating someone other than your partner. It is important to note that one person’s perception of cheating may differ (sometimes dramatically) from another’s.

Defining Online Infidelity

Defining infidelity in the online domain can be even more challenging. Researchers Hertlein and Piercy (2012) had difficulty coming up with a consensus from a Delphi study examining the way “experts” work with clients who experienced Internet infidelity.

In discussing online infidelity, Cooper and Griffin-Shelly (2002) note that it “…involves sexuality for purposes of recreation, entertainment, exploration, support, education, commerce, efforts to attain or secure sexual or romantic partners, and so on” (p. 3). Whitty (2003) came up with three categories of infidelity based on a study in which participants ranked 15 behaviors: sexual infidelity, emotional infidelity, and pornography use.

In a study conducted by Henline, Lamke, and Howard (2007), the researchers found four activities that constitute being unfaithful to a partner: online sex, emotional involvement with someone online, online dating, and other online sexual interactions. Of the four, the majority of participants noted that emotional online behaviors were more damaging than sexual behaviors.


Online infidelity can be harmful to a relationship and can damage a person’s trust in their partner. However, what constitutes these acts is not so clear cut. As such, it is important to have an open and honest discussion with your partner should you have concerns about his or her online behaviors. Perhaps what one partner considered permissible is off limits to the other. Without clear communication, this can lead to the demise of the relationship.


Cooper, A., & Griffin-Shelley, E. (2002). Introduction. The Internet: The next sexual revolution. In A. Cooper (Ed.), Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians (pp. 5–29). New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.

Henline, B. H., Lamke, L. K., & Howard, M. D. (2007). Exploring perceptions of online infidelity. Personal Relationships, 14, 113–128.

Hertlein, K., & Piercy, F. (2012). Essentials of internet infidelity treatment. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(s1), 257–270.

Sharpe, D. I., Walters, A. S., & Goren, M. J. (2013). Effect of cheating experience on attitudes toward infidelity. Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, 17(4), 643–658. doi:10.1007/s12119-013-9169-2

Whitty, M. T. (2003). Pushing the wrong buttons: Men’s and women’s attitudes toward online and offline infidelity. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 569–579. doi:10.1089/109493103322725342

Wilson, K., Mattingly, B. A., Clark, E. M., Weidler, D. J., & Bequette, A. W. (2011). The gray area: Exploring attitudes toward infidelity and the development of the Perceptions of Dating Infidelity Scale. The Journal of Social Psychology, 151(1), 63–86.

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